On Pascal’s Wager and the Cost of Discipleship

Standard

I had a conversation on Pascal’s Wager a couple months ago with a friend that brought about some interesting thoughts, so I figured I’d write them out.

Pascal’s Wager is an argument commonly used to promote and defend the Christian faith. You’ve probably heard it before. The idea is to take a null hypothesis that Christians are wrong about their faith and determine the gain/loss for them given that they believed something that was wrong. Then, you take the alternative case that Christians are right and look at the gain/loss for non-Christians. When compared, there is supposedly overwhelming cause to believe in Christ. As an example, a common version of the argument says that if Christians are wrong about heaven, hell, and Jesus, they lose nothing but “a little fun that wouldn’t have been good for them anyway.” Conversely, if Christians are right, non-Christians lose an eternity of joy dwelling with Christ and gain eternal pain and suffering in hell. Yikes!

This argument makes sense on the surface. One need not be a mathematician to understand that infinity suffering/loss is much bigger than any finite suffering/loss. Even to the non-Christian hedonist, the slightest probability of infinite pleasure or infinite pain should carry a much stronger value than finite pleasures or losses. Infinity times any probability greater than zero still equals infinity and outweighs any non-infinity temporal outcome.  It’s math! However, I see a number of problems with Christians using Pascal’s Wager. One such problem is that the same wager can just as easily be used to argue or justify anything. For example, how can anyone argue against environmentalism if temporal inconveniences like higher gas prices are set against the seemingly eternal consequence of wiping out the human race through global climate change? Is there a 0.00001% chance climate change is taking place? If so, infinity wins and we should have $100/gallon gas. Another example might question how can we allow people to do anything dangerous when them dying, as the movie Cloud Atlas teaches us, has echoes through eternity?  If there’s a 0.0000000001% chance of them dying, then the eternal consequences are too much for us to let them bear the risk. No more flying, driving, or eating food (you could choke!). I always hate using Hitler in examples because it’s insensitive, overly dramatic, and overdone. However, we’ll do it anyway. Hitler could have easily wagered the temporal pain of wiping out entire populations of people against the seemingly eternal benefit of having a “pure” race for the rest of history. In any of these cases, Pascal’s Wager says infinity always wins. I feel for this reason alone, Pascal’s Wager is a dangerous argument and Christians should avoid using it at all costs out of concern for it being turned against them…or others.

However, apart from the previous issue, there’s a deeper problem with Christians using Pascal’s Wager…and it isn’t the logic (which has been debated up and down and is by no means my area of expertise). This problem is good for thought because it has theological implications (hence the theology category). The problem, to me, is in the assumptions used to lay out the two cases. Specifically, the “loss” that Christians experience if they’re wrong has seemed lacking every time I’ve heard it used (and I actually have heard it used). I think this comes from the fact that Christianity has been a dominant world religion for over a milennia. When Blaise Pascal cast his wager in 17th century France, there wasn’t much of a negative outcome to being a Christian. Much like America, being a Christian in France then was an accepted practice (though conservative and evangelical Christianity seem to currently be going out vogue). Even then, I think Christians had lost touch with the concept of “counting the cost” to becoming a disciple of Christ, and I think this is a tragic doctrinal loss (unnecessary excessive parenthesis).

To demonstrate this, I feel the wager would take a very different tone if the individual considering Pascal’s Wager lived in a country like China or North Korea where Christianity has been pushed underground. Christians in repressive countries put their lives at great risk  by believing in, living for, and preaching Christ. Hiding in underground caves to sing songs of worship to a Savior who may not exist under penalty of death seems like a foolish wager indeed. The apostle Paul himself wrote at length about the folly of believing in Christ if He was not who Christians believe Him to be. Taking the argument to its core, he says in I Cor. 15 that if Christ was not raised from the dead, Christians are “of all people most to be pitied.” This certainly does not sound like a sterling endorsement of Pascal’s Wager. Combine this with Jesus’ assertion in Luke 14:26 & 27 and the case grows even more bleak:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

While being pitied above all, “hating” one’s relatives, laying down one’s life to take up a cross of sacrifice, and fearing for one’s life may still pale in comparison to an eternity in hell, it makes the argument much more murky. There is a cost to following Christ, and it is a serious one. Tradition says most of the apostles were killed for their faith, many in very messy ways. The author of the book of Hebrews, while extolling the faith of those who have come before, explains some results of giving oneself to God in chapter 11:35-38:

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

While the American church might not be there now, no one knows what the future could bring. Japanese converts living less than a century before Pascal made his wager went from joyful conversion to martyrdom at a single command of the shogunate, 26 of them by torture and crucifixion. It is for this reason that I groan whenever I hear of so-called “hellfire and brimstone” alter calls. While I do believe firmly in hell and do not ever want to undercut the seriousness of it, I feel that exciting individuals to make serious decisions about becoming disciples of Christ based on emotion is in error. Counting costs does not simply mean comparing hell to the annoyance of cussing a little less than you used to or not drinking as much. Becoming a Christian in the manner prescribed by Christ Himself requires a complete change in belief, lifestyle, priorities, and so much more. This decision should never be taken lightly, even when compared to infinite punishment.

While not directly related, I’ll leave this discussion of counting costs with an except from an article in Relevant magazine written by a former worship leader about the concept of working off of emotions versus working off of truth. The full article can be found here.

The passage of Nehemiah 8 provides an interesting example […] outside our modern context. Essentially, the people of Israel gathered in one massive crowd to hear Ezra read aloud the Law, which had been previously passed down to Moses. The text indicates that this reading took approximately half a day (from early morning until noon); and this was the beginning of the seventh month, a time of high celebration in ancient Israel. Written texts were also extremely rare at this time period, and it is quite possible this was the first time many of the members of the crowd ever heard the words of the Law.

Though standing in a crowded town square for half a day to listen to a priest read a book of law may sound boring to most of us (it certainly does to me!), the Bible tells us that the people responded in a strong emotional manner. Many shouted praises to God, some threw themselves face-first to the ground, and still others wept. The overarching sentiment seemed to be one of sadness and grieving, possibly because these people were hearing the Law for the first time (or maybe the first time in a while) and felt extremely convicted, as they fully realized they were not living up to its guidelines.

This is where it gets interesting. As a former worship leader, and occasional speaker, I tend to feel as though I’ve done something right when the congregation is at this point, when people are feeling confronted by emotions. However, both Ezra and Nehemiah responded, “Don’t weep and carry on … go home and prepare a feast, holiday food and drink; and share it with those who don’t have anything: This day is holy to God. Don’t feel bad. The joy of God is your strength!” At a moment in which a captive audience was experiencing a heavy, emotional response to Holy Scriptures, Ezra could have easily utilized these emotions to hammer the message home. In fact, to some of us this may seem like a wasted opportunity. I would not have batted an eye if Ezra instead responded with: “Do you finally see our brokenness? Can you see how we have failed to live up to our covenant with the God who brought us out of exile? Repent! Change your ways!”

It’s obvious to me that Ezra had perspective on the difference between emotional reactions and true worship of God. I pray the church would once again embrace the concept of counting the cost of following Jesus and would be given grace from God to joyfully incur those costs in pursuit of Him.

Credit goes to Francie Scott for inspiring this post though a great discussion.